Slavery in ancient Greece

Sat Apr 4 18:07:58 2009
Earlier generations of historians have lauded the Greeks for the development of democracy and their extraordinary cultural achievements. More recent developments in economic, social and feminist approaches to history have criticized Greek culture as based upon slavery and the subjugation of women. When viewed within the context of the complex social relations and institutions of the time the position of many slaves (and most women) was actually better than we have been led to believe.

When we today think of slavery we typically think of the large and dehumanizing cotton or tobacco plantations of the American South or the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. I don’t think this a very accurate model for most slavery in ancient Greece. A slave was an integral part of the basic social unit of the time, the oikos or household. In the Politics Aristotle points out the mutual interdependence of the slaves and the head of the household. While the master is in a position of authority but “their interests are the same.” (Aristotle, Politics 3.1278b) While a slave was not a free citizen, they did have a place in society and depending on their abilities some status as well. The lowest place on the social ladder was reserved for the thes, a person without a place in the oikos, and hence without any status in the community. “The terrible thing about a thes was his lack of attachment, his not belonging … the oikos was not merely the family, it was all the people…” (Finley, The World of Odysseus, p. 52-3)

I would not claim that all slaves were treated well–particularly those that served in the mines, however, as an important part of the oikos many slaves held positions of responsibility and were treated accordingly. The Old Oligarch complains that in Athens you cannot tell the slaves from the free as the slaves show no deference as they go about their business. (Constitution of the Athenians, I, 10) In fact some slaves got along pretty well. The philosophers Epictetus and Phaedo, the historian Polybius and Aesop, the author of fables were all slaves. The slave status of Pasion did not prevent him holding an important position of responsibility and eventually becoming quite wealthy (and also free).


~ by severalfourmany on April 4, 2009.

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